OUTLOOK : Last season saw the Gonzaga Bulldogs' reign atop the West Coast Conference come to a halt, as Saint Mary's won both the regular-season and tournament titles, ending a decade and half of dominance by the Bulldogs.
Well, the Zags, who finished just one game off the mark, are poised to make a move back to the top in 2012-13, thanks to the return of four of the team's five starters. The Gaels aren't likely to give up their lofty perch without a fight, and as long as WCC Player of the Year Matthew Dellavedova holds form, Saint Mary's will once again represent Gonzaga with its toughest challenge.
As expected, newcomer BYU made it a three-team race to the finish in the WCC in its inaugural season and there is more than enough talent on the roster to believe a second straight run at the conference crown is not only achievable by likely.
Likewise, Loyola Marymount made a big move last year and with a Player of the year candidate at the point, the sky is the limit again for the Lions, who round out the upper echelon in the West Coast Conference this season.
San Diego was one of the real surprises in the league a year ago, but the Toreros won't sneak up on anyone this time around. Pepperdine returns a proven commodity to anchor play in the backcourt, but not enough playmakers at the other positions to garner much fanfare heading into the season.
Santa Clara didn't win a single conference game a year ago, but will also get a proven playmaker back from injury and should certainly post some conference wins this time around, albeit not that many.
The biggest fall could occur at San Francisco. The Dons suffered severe losses with a mass exodus following last season, Rex Walters will be hard-pressed to keep his team relevant in 2012-13. The Portland Pilots went from a 20-win season two years ago to a 24-loss campaign in 2011-12. With little in terms of proven players, duplicating last year's 3-13 league record could be considered ambitious.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION : Gonzaga
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH : 1. Gonzaga, 2. Saint Mary's, 3. BYU, 4. Loyola Marymount, 5. San Diego, 6. Pepperdine, 7. Santa Clara, 8. San Francisco, 9. Portland
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS :
GONZAGA : Mark Few's squad finished just off the mark last season, ending its streak of conference titles with a 13-3 mark. Still, the team finished an impressive 26-7 overall and enjoyed its 14th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. With a slew of returning talent back and some exciting newcomers (one in particular), the Bulldogs should return to WCC glory once again. The backcourt could be the best in the league, led by sophomores Kevin Pangos (13.6 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Gary Bell Jr. (10.4 ppg). The hope is that an unproven commodity in redshirt freshman Kyle Dranginis (6-5, 175) can add even more scoring punch from the perimeter. The team's best player however, resides up front in senior forward Elias Harris (13.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg). The 6-7 senior really elevated his game as a rebounder last year and could vie for WCC Player of the Year if he continues his upward swing. Joining Harris up front is 6-9 junior Sam Dower (8.3 ppg) who gives the team another viable offensive threat. Few is salivating over the potential of freshman foreign import Przekek Karnowski. The Polish youngster is massive at 7-1, 280 pounds and could be the best big man in the conference right off the bat.
SAINT MARY'S : For the first time in 15 years, someone not named Gonzaga swept the conference regular-season and conference crowns. Randy Bennett's squad did so with a gritty performance in the title game and finished the year with a stellar 27-6 record overall and a 14-2 mark in-conference. While the team does lose some talent up front, the backcourt is still as dangerous as ever, led by Dellavedova. Last year's WCC Player of the Year, Dellavedova didn't take a whole lot of time off, rather joining the Australian Olympic team. Could he be even better as a senior? That's hard to imagine after averaging 15.5 points and 6.4 assists per game last year. Add sharpshooting junior Stephen Holt (10.1 ppg) alongside and the backcourt rivals any the WCC has to offer. Losing double-double machine Rob Jones (15.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg) up front won't be easy and has to be Bennett's primary job heading into the season. It certainly won't come from just one player, although 6-9 sophomore Brad Waldow (8.1 ppg) will be expected to assuage that loss as much as possible. As far as minutes for newcomers goes, juco transfer James Walker III may get the most. The 6-3 guard averaged just over 19 points per game last year, after transferring from Utah State. He was named the California JC Player of the Year.
BYU : The post Jimmer Fredette era began last season and the results were certainly better than expected for Dave Rose and the Cougars. BYU's first foray into the West Coast Conference resulted in a 12-4 conference mark, just one game behind second-place Gonzaga and two behind league champion Saint Mary's. The results landed a third WCC team in the Big Dance, certainly enforcing the conference's legitimacy. The Cougars managed to lead the conference in scoring, but did so in a different way without the services of Fredette. Instead, it was Noah Hartsock (16.8 ppg) who led the charge up front. Once again though, Rose will need to find an adequate replacement as Hartsock has moved on. The hope is that sophomores Matt Carlino (12.2 ppg, 4.6 apg) and Tyler Haws, recently returned from mission work, will fill the scoring void along the perimeter, while senior Brandon Davies (15.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg) continues to dominate down low. Davies will need help in the frontcourt though and should receive some support from 6-11 center Nate Austin (4.1 ppg). Players like 6-6 swingman Brock Zylstra (8.3 ppg) will need to elevate their games though if BYU is to once again contend for conference supremacy.
LOYOLA MARYMOUNT : To say that LMU was a bit of a surprise last season could be an understatement. Max Good finally delivered ,as the Lions eclipsed the 20-win mark for the first time in a long, long while. However, to match last year's 21-13 mark and fourth-place finish (11-5) in the conference won't be easy. Good must find adequate replacements for the departing Drew Viney (15.2 ppg) and Jarred DuBois (10.1 ppg), but he does have a nice returning core, headlined by junior guard Anthony Ireland (16.1 ppg, 4.9 apg) and senior forward Ashley Hamilton (11.0 ppg). The hope is that Good found a gem in juco transfer Chase Flint. The 6-1 sophomore is a jack-of-all trades with the ability to contribute in a number of areas. Freshmen Nick Stover (6-6, 200) and Taj Adams (6-7, 180) may also be called upon to make immediate contributions. If the youngsters can fill in the stat sheet around Ireland and Hamilton, the Lions could find themselves among the conference's top teams again in 2012-13.
SAN DIEGO : The Toreros were picked to finish last in the conference a year ago, so a sixth-place finish (7-9) has to be considered a positive heading into 2012-13. In fact, the way the team finished down the stretch, winning five of its last seven games will certainly be something Bill Grier can build on. It will help that just about everyone is back, including sophomore guards Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson. Dee (13.7 ppg) is the shooter, while the diminutive Anderson (5-7, 150) has the ability to do a lot of things well (9.0 ppg. 5.0 apg, led the WCC in steals). Senior forwards Chris Manresa (8.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Ken Rancifer (7.5 ppg) will need to step up in the frontcourt to give the team balance. Fighting for conference supremacy isn't in the cards this season, but reaching .500 or even a winning record this season should be the goal.
PEPPERDINE : The Waves struggled to be competitive last season (10-19, 4-12 WCC), thanks mostly to the team's lack of scoring (322nd nationally at 59.3 ppg). Marty Wilson's third season in Malibu may not yield much better results. He does get senior point guard Lorne Jackson back from injury. The 6-2 veteran tore his ACL a year ago, but when last one the court he was both a solid scorer (13.2 ppg) and distributor from the point. Horne will be joined in the backcourt by sophomore Jordan Baker (9.0 ppg) and Caleb Willis (6.1 ppg). The team has a real problem with depth up front, as there is no established frontcourt contributor on the roster, with the loss of forward Taylor Darby (12.3 ppg) and center Corbin Moore (10.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg). The team will look to junior Moriba De Freitas (6-9, 220) and sophomores Manny Ochenje (6-9, 205) and Jan Maehlen (7-0, 300) to step up. The wildcard in the frontcourt is UCLA transfer Brendan Lane, who didn't do much in three years with the Bruins.
SANTA CLARA : What a difference a year can make. After winning the CIT Championship following the 2010-11 season, another step in the right direction was expected by Kerry Keating's squad. Instead, the downward spiral ensued in 2011-12, with Santa Clara going a mere 8-22 overall, while becoming the first team in 11 years to go winless in the West Coast Conference (0-16). There were certainly factors that led to the downfall, headlined by a knee injury to Marc Trasolini (12.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg). The 6-9 senior returns and the hope is that he comes back at full strength and can pick up where he left off. Trasolini will be paired with fellow senior Niyi Harrison (10.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg) to give the team a solid one-two punch in the frontcourt. Still, it is Santa Clara's backcourt that will lead the way. Junior point guard Evan Roquemore (13.8 ppg. 5.3 apg) is both a scorer and deft distributor and the Keating really hopes that senior Kevin Foster's troubles are behind him. The 6-2 220-pounder is one of the top scorers in the conference (17.8 ppg), but was suspended last year.
SAN FRANCISCO : What is it about Rex Walter's that has his players jumping ship? The Dons, who finished last season a solid 20-14 overall, but just 8-8 in conference play, will look a lot different this season, as six players eligible to return in 2011-12 have moved on. When the dust cleared, over 70 percent of last year's offense is gone, via transfer or graduation. The team returns just one starter in the form of junior guard Cody Doolin (9.3 ppg, 3.8 apg), who is an unheralded playmaker that will need to elevate his game. The cupboard is bare up front also, with 6-7 junior Cole Dickerson (7.1 ppg) representing the only known commodity. There are no two ways about it, San Francisco is going to need some newcomers to step up. The likely candidates are junior guard De'End Parker, who comes over from UCLA and sophomore forward Frank Rogers, a juco transfer.
PORTLAND : It was a tough season for Eric Reveno and the Pilots last year (7-24, 3-13 WCC) and it could get worse before it gets any better. The fall from grace did not come out of nowhere, as losing several key components from a 20-win season the year before was sure to hurt. However, no one could have envisioned 24 losses in 2011-12. Sophomore point guard Kevin Bailey (9.5 ppg) will be charged with leading the Pilots into the new campaign. Portland has a couple of role players that will need to step up and become prominent contributors, led by junior guard Tanner Riley (6.2 ppg). Incoming talent includes 6-4 freshman point guard Oskars Reinfelds from Latvia and 6-7 freshman forward Jake Ehlers, a two-time Oregon Player of the Year.